The 2021 session of the General Assembly began in January, as the world was entering its second year of the pandemic. The hope was the COVID fog would lift, allowing a return to normalcy, at least in a relative sense, and that lawmakers could go about business as usual.
Much was on the legislative agenda, among the most pressing a need to finally pass a budget Gov. Roy Cooper would sign and redraw election maps Democrats might accept, all with a goal of finishing the session by Halloween.
The results were decidedly bittersweet, at least from a Republican standpoint, with Democrats choosing tricks over treats.
Cooper, albeit begrudgingly, signed a budget passed by the Republican-led General Assembly, which was a first. Things then took a turn toward an extended session and protracted court battles, which, to be fair, came as no surprise. Lawmakers submitted maps, the outcome, they said, the product of a fair and transparent process.
“I am confident that the House and Senate have approved redistricting plans that include maps that are constitutional in every respect,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said after lawmakers approved the maps late last year.
Democrats, empowered by strong national interests determined to skew elections left, thought otherwise. The N.C. Supreme Court last week rejected state congressional and legislative election maps with a party-line 4-3 vote. The court’s four Democratic justices agreed to strike down maps drawn by a Republican-led legislature.
State lawmakers will have until Feb. 18 to submit new maps for a three-judge panel’s consideration.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have some unfinished business, which they’ll turn to during the spring session. Eventually.
Jordan Roberts senses some fatigue among lawmakers, as a second pandemic-laced session drug on toward Christmas. Roberts, director of government affairs at the John Locke Foundation, said lawmakers are eager to finish in 2022 so those seeking re-election can get to work raising money and campaigning.
“I see a sense of urgency to finish up business and be done,” Roberts told Carolina Journal.
After all, he said, there’s less time to do the work of getting elected if legislators keep returning to redraw maps. “I think there’s just a real sense of urgency to wrap up.”
The General Assembly, as mentioned, has focused on finishing with redistricting — whatever that looks like — and either preparing stump speeches or taking a long-delayed break. The 2022 version of the short session, typically held in even-numbered years, won’t start until spring or early summer, though the 2021 marathon continues.
The 2021 session ended Dec. 10, with lawmakers technically returning to work Dec. 30. Most lawmakers actually reconvened in Raleigh in January after the holidays. Finishing the redistricting process and rescheduling the election primaries were early priorities, although Cooper vetoed the latter move. Once lawmakers turn toward other issues in the regular short session, the goal is to finish by the Fourth of July.
“In different times, N.C. lawmakers would return to action in May of an even-numbered year after a lengthy break — perhaps as long as nine or 10 months,” said Mitch Kokai, John Locke Foundation senior political analyst. “Because their 2021 session lasted so long, and because they returned to Raleigh earlier than normal in 2022, it’s not clear that they will have the willpower to engage in long, drawn-out heated debates this time around. Add in the fact that almost all of them will see at least some changes in their election districts, and they will have even more incentive to get to work, do what needs to be done, and then go home.”
Senate Republicans have not formally set their priorities for the upcoming short session, Lauren Horsch, spokeswomen for Senate President Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, told Carolina Journal.
“However,” Horsch said, “we remain committed to building off of our successful 2021 session that cut taxes for all North Carolinians, expanded access to school choice, and provided relief for businesses impacted by the pandemic.”
Roberts expects some caucusing and serious discussion around several free-market issues, including sports wagering, medical marijuana, and Medicaid expansion, an issue for the newly formed Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and N.C. Health Choice, which Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, will co-chair.
Expect lawmakers to take up fewer individual bills, however, Roberts said, though measures such as House Bill 324, Ensuring Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Schools, may get a second chance.
The bill was designed to prevent schools from forcing students to adopt certain controversial beliefs. Supporters and opponents alike linked some of those beliefs to the controversial Critical Race Theory, but Cooper vetoed the move. Republicans in the General Assembly could override that veto, albeit with some help from Democrats, a tenuous prospect, at best.
“The legislature should be focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning, and investing in our public schools,” Cooper said in vetoing the bill. “Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.”
Berger, who led the push for the final version of H.B. 324, fired back.
“It’s perplexing that Governor Cooper would veto a bill that affirms the public school system’s role to teach students the full truth about our state’s sometimes ugly past,” Berger said in a prepared statement. “His invented excuse is so plainly refuted by the text of the bill that I question whether he even read it.”
“More broadly, Democrats’ choice to oppose a bill saying schools can’t force kids to believe one race is superior to another really shows how far off the rails the mainstream Democratic Party has gone.”
To that point, one impetus for the Medicaid committee is Democrats’ incessant pleas, led by Cooper, to expand the federal program, a primary reason the governor has cited for vetoing previous budgets. Whether the committee plans to make serious moves toward that goal or is effectively placating Cooper isn’t yet clear.
But the committee may, says Roberts, advocate for reforms proposed by the John Locke Foundation, which means choosing against expanding Medicaid in favor of free-market reforms, such as reforming the state’s certificate-of-need laws, granting full practice authority to the state’s advanced practice nurses, and expanding access to telehealth.
A bill legalizing the use of medical marijuana, Senate Bill 711, may at least get a hearing in the Senate, Roberts told CJ, if only to “see what the temperature is.” The oft-revised measure, called the N.C. Compassionate Care Act, would allow marijuana to treat “debilitating” conditions such as cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. The most recent iteration of the well-traveled bill was sent to the Senate’s Rules Committee on Aug. 26, and that’s where it has remained.
As of May 2021, 36 states and four territories allow for the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of Nov. 29, 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for non-medical use. Sen BIll Rabon, R-Brunswick, is a primary sponsor of S.B. 711. Rabon is a cancer survivor.
“Just personally, I’ve waited long enough,” Rabon told The Assembly, a long-form news website. “Every session we wait, every day we wait, someone’s gonna suffer that could benefit.”
Lawmakers also may again take up some proposed constitutional amendments, including Senate Bill 717, Taxpayer Bill of Rights, in the form of a constitutional amendment, which would require for approval a three-fifths vote of all members of the Senate and House. The measure limits state spending growth not to exceed the combined rate of inflation plus population growth, and it requires annual deposits in a state savings fund, for example.
That bill was sent to Senate Rules in April, where it now sits. In March of last year, the John Locke Foundation asked likely voters whether they would support such a measure. Some 58% supported ths idea, with just 17% opposed; 24% either had no opinion or were unsure.
Brian Balfour, senior vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, offered five reasons to support the measure. Those include making permanent fiscal restraint, ending the state budgetary roller coaster, and the positive prospects for job creation and growth.
It’s also possible, says Roberts, that Senate Bill 355, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, will reemerge in some form.
Senators held several hearings to discuss S.B. 355, but the effort ultimately stalled. Later in the session, the Senate tried again by replacing the original language of the House-passed House Bill 64 with the same language from S.B. 355 through a process known as “gut and amend.” H.B. 64, in its new form, returned to the House for concurrence; House members voted not to concur, a move that sent the bill to a conference committee, where it sits.
“I think that might get done,” said Roberts, attributing his optimism to the legislation’s path through the committee process.
The N.C. Press Association is strongly pushing the bill, though employee unions, including the N.C. Association of Educators, have worked to make it disappear. S.B. 355 would create a new requirement that government entities make a general description of certain personnel actions available to the public.
Under current law, personnel files of state employees are confidential and may not be released except in certain limited circumstances to certain individuals or entities, the summary says.
Among those pushing for the bill is John Bussian, one of the country’s top press lawyers. Bussian has said the bill places a modest but important light on the records, especially when compared with other states.
“There is no legitimate public policy reason not to allow North Carolinians the right to see records of disciplinary actions taken against the people they employ in state and local government,” Bussian said. “The vast majority of states enjoy access like this, and the best of these states allow complete access to these files.”